Monday, April 29, 2019

Desire of Vastness

Read "Desire of Vastness" at The Eldritch Dark:

This sonnet by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) does a wonderful job of articulating the vast scope of the writer's imagination, and making obvious why his outlook and artistic concerns are so often described as "cosmic".

The noticeable use of internal rhyming within individual lines works very well in "Desire of Vastness", and in this example the internal rhyme is continued to a following line:

What central sea with plume-plucked midnight strewn,
Plangent to what enormous plenilune

What interests me even more is that this poem is another example where CAS made changes between the original appearance (in Ebony and Crystal (1922)) and the later publication in his career-spanning Selected Poems (1971).  In the original publication, the second stanza begins:

The brazen comprehension of the waste,
The waste inclusion of the brazen sky--

In those two lines, CAS uses creates interesting effects with the repetition of the words "brazen" and "waste".  However, those same lines were changed to:

The brazen empire of the bournless waste,
The unstayed dominions of the brazen sky—

The revised version of the first line strikes me as much more powerful, replacing the awkward and unpoetic word "comprehension" with the striking phrase "the bournless waste".  Likewise, in the second line the vague phrase "waste inclusion" gives way to "unstayed dominions", a much more concrete and musical phrase.

Being able to compare early and later versions of poems by CAS is valuable, since it allows the reader a glimpse into the author's evolving sense of craft.  I have quite a few different editions of the poems of CAS, and I can't say I regret a single purchase!  

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The City of the Titans

Read "The City of the Titans" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is another poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that references the Titans from Greek mythology.  This time around, he doesn't really touch on any specific names or events from the myths, but rather seems to invoke the Titans as emblematic of the fallen, those who once possessed greatness but have lost all claims upon it.

The closing triplet of the tercet that ends this sonnet is especially powerful:

The city dreamed in darkness evermore,
Pregnant with crypts of terrible strange lore
And doom-fraught arsenals in lampless keeps.

Verses like that are the very reason that I hold CAS in such awe for his poetic abilities.  The phrase "doom-fraught arsenals in lampless keeps" is brief, unambiguous, beautifully worded, and incredibly evocative of both mood and image.  Few writers have the ability to express so much with such economy.

Monday, April 22, 2019


Read "Nightmare" at The Eldritch Dark:

After previously reading Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) unusual long poem "The Doom of America" yesterday, "Nightmare" seems like a return to form, with CAS skillfully handling a subject that is more in sync with the larger portion of his poetic corpus.

"Nightmare" is a short poem, but as a description of an unpleasant experience while sleeping it hits all the high points, with the final stanza really cementing the experience for me:

Rejected at the closen gates of light
I turned, and down new dreams and shadows fled,
Where beetling shapes of veiled, colossal dread
With Gothic wings enormous arched the night.

A phrase like "beetling shapes of veiled, colossal dread" may be melodramatic, but it never fails to capture my attention.  In this poem, CAS takes a simple subject, works it into only twelve lines of verse, and delivers a visceral and memorable reading experience.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Doom of America

Here is a long poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) never published in his lifetime, so let's start with the text itself, which features many unusually long lines:

Thou has striven after strange gods, O America: in the temples of latter time, thou hast lifted up Baal and Mammon and Moloch.
Thou hearkenst wholly unto these, thine ears seek after the flattery of subtle and false oracles:
They are filled therewith, they are grossly satisfied: neither shalt thou hear the Lord if His thunders bespeak thee, nor heed His prophets except with mockery.
O bride thou wast given unto God of former time! O sharer in the covenant of the Most High: 
Thou doest adultery with bestial deities:
Yea, thou deniest it not, in the marts thou confirmest the report of thy shame with mirth.
O breaker of faith, thou fearest not, thou art graceless: thou hast forgotten the promises of the jealousy of the Lord, and the prophecy of his vengeance: 
O fornicatrix! thou art entirely naked; thou art bare even of shame.

Thou hast built innumerable furnaces for altars to the greed of thy gods: thou hast drawn forth the demons of the elements and enforced them to labour with groaning and shrieking in the service of Mammon.
But the smell of thine altars is not pleasant to the true God, neither do the stars approve it: 
It is a stench to the nostrils of Alcyone; the cry of the sacrifice is a howl of abomination in the ears of Altair.
The stars have cursed thee with red conjunctions, with a most fatal configuration: 
They are leagued with God in a conspiracy against thee.
Thou canst not hear the menace of His mirth, who fashioneth the levins of reckoning: 
Neither dost thou observe how the planets of midnight shake with an evil and unheard laughter: 
In her cold hollow heat, the pale moon hath a most black and secret mirth:
The years and days of thine end have been assigned to the work thereof, and God hath already named their attendant angels:
Time and the sun have been notified as to thy doom; thou alone knowest it not.

O foolish, O indiscreet, thou hast taken to thee many alien peoples, the stranger is become thy possessor;
They shall be invoked against thee soon, they shall be given over to the task of thy confusion, even to the redoubling thereof:
The curse of Babel shall be upon thee.
Shall the Beasts of the Abyss that thou hast taken for deities, countervail the flaming might of the seraphim, the sunlike wrath of the Most Righteous? 
Mammon shall be aghast in the light of thine end, Moloch shall reel amain before the thunder of thine undoing.

Art thou stronger than Rome, art thou greater than Babylon, that, sinning as these sinned, thou shalt abide where they abode not, nor be stricken as these were stricken?
Nay, thou art less than these were, the term of thy fornication shall be briefer than theirs; Doom shall come upon thee ere thou art made ready, and the chariots thereof shall be swifter than comets.

O scorner of poets and prophets, of them that are soothsayers: O mocker of the trumpets of Truth: I know that thou wilt not heed me: thou wilt pause a little, thou wilt pass on with derision and forget:
For thine ears are withholden; the rumour of the preparation of doom may not reach so far; and seals are upon thine eyes like eyelids.
Perhaps thou wilt remember me, in the days like tempestuous night, when thine ears shall be thronged with the thousand noises of the labour of death, and around thee shall gather and multiply the rumours of manifold division:
When many confusions are increased upon thee.
But now thou sayest, Ha, ha, am I not armoured with cities, is not my metropolis a shield of adamant embossed with iron?
Am I not fortified? Have I not swift messengers that I have taken captive in the kingdom of the wind?
Am I not ringed about with demons of the deep, with strangers from the vast that I have enslaved and compelled to my service?
Yea! but the strength of iron and stone availeth and saveth not when the heart is corrupted; 
Neither shall the weapons of genii protect against the rot and rust of the spirit.

O thou unseemly one, whose actions are not meet: who hast suffered thy merchants to wax as kings: who admittest the multitude to thy councils:
In the end they shall betray thee to the desert and the dust.
In that day thy captains and divers peoples shall divide thee from within: the strong shall be at strife with the strong:
Also, the heathen of his multitude shall sunder thee from round about: he whose heart is entire within him, who is not forsworn as thou:
Who hath not departed from his god as thou from thine.
O twice-confounded: in the end they shall render thee to the Abyss, to the blind and earless One who receiveth but rendereth not in turn:
Abaddon shall take charge of thee.

In the far time to come, ere the end of the black cycle, thy memory shall be but as the writing on a stone that hath crumbled, that the wind hath lifted grain by grain and diffused afar:
The wise and patient shall hardly regather the characters of that writing, nor put together the import thereof.
Only some wind, that hath blown always within thy loneliest and most ancient waste, shall have remembrance of thee then.
Even thy magic shall be forgotten: the desert peoples latterly thy remnant, will hardly have the same name for thy devils in that day made free and ranging as aforetime.
Also, thy high and haughty cities shall in those years be such that they who builded would scarcely say of this were their own handiwork: 
Neither shall they endure as the stone of old time, as the pillars of Rome and Tyre that builded mightily, of Egypt whose toil shall be a testimony to the stars of the last and endless night.

In many ways, the content of this work doesn't really lend itself to poetic form and structure, but one gets the impression that CAS had something he needed to say, and documented it in words using the device he knew best: poetry.  As a poem, it's not all that great since it amounts to an extended rant, but there sure are some powerful aspects to that rant.

I'm most curious amount the religious content of this work.  Phrases like "the smell of thine altars is not pleasant to the true God" are unusual for CAS, and after reading this piece a few times I'm still not sure how much these invocations of the Abrahamic deity are simply an artistic device.  I suspect CAS is using God only as a dramatic vehicle to damn the shortcomings of America, but I'm not really sure about that.

Smith himself described this work in a letter to George Sterling as follows:*

The last is a sort of Bible prophecy, in about fifty verses.  I don't suppose it's poetry.  It's a sort of round-up of all my grudges and kicks against the present age.  I even took a swat at the suffragettes.  I'm glad it's out of my system.

So as a work of poetry, it's reasonable to dismiss this work, as CAS apparently did himself.  But this work nonetheless offers an insight into CAS' frustrations with the role of a poet in early twentieth century America, a familiar plight for an artist that hasn't really changed much in the over one hundred years since he penned these lines.

*See letter #83 in The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

A diversion: Sidney-Fryer on the poetry

I've recently been reading Donald Sidney-Fryer's excellent essay "The Sorcerer Departs", one of several essays that he has written about the works of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS).  This essay has been published in a number of different editions, and is currently available in collections from both La Clef d'Argent and Night Shade Books.

The following paragraph from that essay is particularly perceptive, and so I'm quoting it here in full:

Smith’s affinities with Baudelaire are so obvious as to pass almost without mention. However, we must allude to one fundamental affinity between Smith and Baudelaire. The French poet sought to create beauty out of the filth, the squalor, the disease, the evil and the horror of a great metropolis (Paris). Similarly, Smith sought to create beauty not so much out of the filth, the evil, the implicit or actual horror of one great city as he did out of the ugliness of death and decay and destruction, out of the horror of an irrevocable doom, out of the terror of an ultimate nothingness beyond death (what Sir Thomas Browne terms “the uncomfortable night of nothingness”), or paradoxically out of the possibility that there is no death, that all animate things whether in life or in death as well as all things inanimate—in short, absolutely all things—by virtue of their theoretically indestructible atoms are part and parcel of an inconceivably monstrous and perverse arch-life-form without beginning and without end whether in space or in time that involves not only the cosmos but also the void beyond the cosmos. (This last is given its most powerful symbolic embodiment in the “huge eyeless Face, / That fills the void and fills the universe, / And bloats against the limits of the world / With lips of flame that open,” in the tenth and final section of “The Hashish-Eater.”) If, as averred by Victor Hugo, Baudelaire did introduce into the literature of poetry “un frisson nouveau,” then Smith has in his own turn introduced “le frisson cosmique.”

This strikes me as a very perceptive interpretation of the larger world-view of CAS, and I am especially intrigued by the notion of CAS creating beauty "out of the possibility that there is no death, that all...things...are part and parcel of an inconceivably monstrous and perverse arch-life-form without beginning and without end".  

From my own readings to date of CAS' output in both prose and poetry, Sidney-Fryer's observation rings true, and provides something of a framework from which to approach CAS' intentions as an artist.  I'll be keeping this perspective in mind as I read further into CAS' poetic corpus.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Clouds

Here we have another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was not published in his lifetime, nor available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:

          Their tow'rs are builded far;
          They have strange sorcery
          To draw from out the sea
Their palaces more swift than shadows are--

          Their lucent halls and domes
          That house the western sun,
          And when his stay is done,
Are yet the stars' more dim and hallowed homes.

          Their minarets uppiled 
          A rich enchantment be,
          Their pillars, mystery,
Their walls, a magic unexplained and wild.

          Their tow'rs are builded far;
          Upon the world's extremes,
          They stay fleet sunset dreams,
Ere those shall hasten to the twilight star.

          Remote upon blue noon,
          Their temples white and fair
          Lure fainter wings, that there
Find sanctuary sure--ah, not too soon!

          They have strange sorcery
          To build upon the wind
          Their tow'rs supreme-designed,
And less enduring than the shadows be.

This is one of several poems by CAS with a cloud theme that I have read so far (the others are "Cloudland" and "The Cloud-Islands").  As with those thematically-related works, this poem is interesting but not particularly memorable, a rather ordinary work from an occasionally extraordinary poet.

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Land of Evil Stars

Read "The Land of Evil Stars" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) bears re-reading (in my case, several times!) due to a combination of evocative language and a visually rich scenario that prompts all sorts of visions in the reader's mind.

In the first stanza, CAS gives us white flowers basking in glorious sunshine.  And then with the onset of night, the "evil stars" work their sinister magic on those fragile blooms:

Peace and pallor of the flowers
They have fevered, they have marred
With the poison of their light,
With distill├Ęd bale and blight

There's a sort of reverse Disneyfication going on here.  Where the legendary animator might take such a subject and bring the plants to life with joyous song and gyration, CAS instead brings down a dark and almost violent fate on those same subjects.  Of course, the poem acknowledges the diurnal cycle, so there is some hope that the dominion of the evil stars is not permanent, and I'm sure those white flowers are very glad of that fact!

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Ghoul

This early poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:

He seemed, in implicit deeper night
          Of cypress, and the glade of cedarn gloom,
          A shadow come from catacomb or tomb,
The shade of midnight's subterranean might
Upthrown to strengthen darkness, and affright,
          Light's rear and remnant, and defer the doom
          Of phantoms--ere the haled dawn relume
The woodland fanes of Hecatean rite.

When half the conclave of the glooms was gone, 
          Gigantical I saw his form define,
                    and sombre on the sun's eternal ways;
And fantoms languid in the night's decline,
          Were, thinnest mist-ranks paling tow'rd the dawn,
                    O'er the black tarns of his abhorrent gaze.

CAS is sometimes accused of using a vocabulary that leans towards the archaic and the obscure.  In general, I disagree with that assessment, since it seeks to deny the rich possibilities of the English language, a vein that CAS usually exploited with outstanding results.

However, the "The Ghoul" is a case where CAS did indeed go a bit over the edge.  A phrase like "haled dawn relume" is just awkward, and despite the lush vocabulary, the image that CAS paints of this ghoul is rather vague at best.  So I can't say I'm surprised that CAS chose not to publish these particular lines.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Nereid

Read "The Nereid" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) ran to five quatrains (twenty lines) when it was originally published in Ebony and Crystal (1922), but was later expanded to eight quatrains when it was included in the career-spanning Selected Poems (1971).

That later extension of the poem makes all the difference for me as a reader, since the three additional quatrains are the best part of the poem:

The berylline pallors of her face
Illume the kingdom of the drowned.
In her the love that none has found,
The unflowering rapture, folded grace,

Await some lover strayed and lone,
Some god misled, who shall not come
Though the decrescent seas lie dumb
And sunken in their wells of stone.

But nevermore of him, perchance,
Her enigmatic musings are,
Whose purpling tresses float afar
In grottoes of the last romance.

The last three lines quoted above have a particular magic.  

The romantic element was not part of the original, shorter version of the poem, and the later inclusion of these musings on "some lover strayed and lone" really give the poem a focus that was missing the first time around.